“Take back the streets!” urged Pentagram partner Paula Scher last week at a design symposium in New York. This was no anarcho-syndicalist cry, or environmental call to eliminate cars from Manhattan’s avenues: Scher was calling for the revival of the street poster as a communications medium. In a society rich with moving media, “the likelihood that anyone will see the same thing at one time is decreasing”, she said. The poster is, she argued, “more powerful than ever”, because it remains one of the few fixed media that can be guaranteed a specific audience.
The weekend symposium was held to coincide with an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum called Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. It examines the various aesthetic styles, media and ideas that have bubbled together in American graphic design over the past 15 years. Its curator Ellen Lupton argues that the heterogenous nature of design in those years is unprecedented. Amid the technological revolution, where low-tech and high-tech media converge with a Post Modern ethos of self-conscious appropriation, no single graphic style has emerged. Instead, says Lupton, “design elicits divergent responses in a landscape of competing signals”, particularly on the streets, where “different modes of design converge and overlap”.
So the inside walls of the old museum are lined with a wild array of graphics that would have previously been confined to the outside walls – from rock band logos that parody multinational corporate marks to women’s action group stickers and rave fliers. The symposium brought together a similar array of speakers from around the country to thrash out the themes raised in the show. Who owns the street? Why use it? And what happens to a design when it crosses the borderline from “street” into the mainstream?
Scher’s presentation, based on slides of a poster-driven campaign she had art directed for the downtown fringe theatre the Public, highlighted the last question. Her poster campaign for the acc laimed rhythm and dance presentation of African American history, Bring in da noise, bring in da funk, was a hit with the hip, off-Broadway crowd. It featured the star of the show, in street duds, dancing amid a chaotic arrangement of type. But when the show reached Broadway, the response rate to Scher’s poster and ads was disappointing. “The ad was scaring the people who go to Broadway productions, a suburban crowd in its 40s. “They don’t like to see black guys with lots of type moving around them.”
To the exasperation of Scher and some of the show’s cast, an advertising agency then produced billboard ads showing the star in a tuxedo and added a technicolor, circus-style variation on Scher’s type. The show was thus repackaged from a cool African-American epic into a cuddly vaudeville number. The lead character, says Scher, “was incredibly insulted”.
Art Chantry, the madcap maverick granddaddy of Seattle grunge graphics, claimed that he has always enjoyed seeing his ideas being absorbed by mainstream culture. A man who has been known to attack a stack of his fresh-printed posters with a blowtorch to achieve the desired burnt effect, or run a drill through them to avoid the cost of a die cut, Chantry has acquired a “lesion of copycats”, he says. “That’s frustrating commercially, but exciting creatively.” Appropriation seems perpetually to amuse him. “I love taking corporate logos and turning them into nasty things,” he said, flashing a slide of Boycott magazine, with the Shell logo reworked to highlight the word “hell”. As a self-proclaimed “folk artist of a technological merchant culture”, Chantry’s dream is that one day someone will discover one of his posters in an attic and say, “Huh. That”.
On my way home from the conference, I noticed a teaser poster from some high-tech company (probably Microsoft). It showed a blue sky with a cursor lurking in the foreground and the words
“Wouldn’t you rather be at home?” The implication was that we’d be happier sitting in front of our computers than riding the subway. How refreshing it was to go to a design conference about the real streets rather than those of the digital highway. On the poster, someone had scrawled “get a life”. Sometimes interactivity on the streets is just more potent.